There is a seismic shift of sorts underway in the landscape of late-night television. Jay Leno has been replaced by Jimmy Fallon. Letterman will soon be replaced by Stephen Colbert. Seth Myers also is entering the late-night fray, along with the current stable of talking heads, like Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart…
Noticing a pattern here? It seems that the old saying is true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Yes, older established talkshow hosts are being replaced as everyone vies for market share. Younger bucks are being called up for their moment in the spotlight and their opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the legacies they are inheriting. But with all of the chatter about who is taking whose seat, I have heard little, if anything, about the fact that all of these transitions are painfully safe choices.
Is there no room for women or people of color at the helm of these late night shows? Yes, a few networks have tried and have achieved less than stellar results. George Lopez at a relatively short-lived stint in the talkshow circuit, but his show took a dive not because he is Latino; in my personal opinion, it’s because his comedy is too predictable to be reiterated every weeknight without getting stale. Arsenio Hall is held up as another cautionary tale, but the fact is that lots of white guys have failed at it too.
There is plenty of misunderstanding around why Conan O’Brien was so quickly replaced by his predecessor at the Tonight Show. Many speculate that Jay Leno demanded his job back, while in fact, Conan’s ratings as Tonight Show host were dismal. Similarly, Jay Leno’s ratings for his new show, which aired earlier (at least for a very little while) were equally terrible. But despite those failures, both Conan and Leno have enjoyed many more years behind one late-night desk or another.
Why? Because they are a safe choice. Because they feel familiar, and apparently, because viewers continue to tolerate it. But can anyone honestly tell me that someone of the caliber of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes or Kristin Wiig could not have taken one of these shows by storm? Is the fault of viewers for being so picky about the race and gender of their beloved talking heads, or by the network decision-makers becoming increasingly conservative, so to speak, as competition for the airwaves becomes ever more intense?
It’s hard to say, really. But unfortunately so-called “minority” hosts are not given the same pass that a white male is given to fail the first time around. On the part of the networks, it reflects a fear of breaking from tradition. For viewers, it may represent some degree of discomfort for those who enjoyed positions of cultural privilege for so long not to continue to dominate the conversation. What results is a staring match between culture and economics, with either afraid to blink.
The good news is that there are plenty of other platform options for people today who do not fit the mold of the traditional late-night talkshow host. But even many of those continue to be dominated mostly by white men. Yes, there are women and people of color in prominent roles all across the sitcom in daytime talk circuits. But late-night seems to remain a curiously exclusive club into which few others, if any, are still able to break.